02/29/2012 11:18 EST | Updated 04/28/2012 05:12 EDT

If Latin America Became Democratic, So Can the Middle East

Claims there is a "clash of civilizations" between Muslim countries and the West because of fundamentally opposed values have been soundly debunked by the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries, masses of people -- especially youth -- have taken to the streets demanding democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity -- values that are important to us in the West as well.

The Arab Spring was sparked by frustration at authoritarian governments that were indifferent to the aspirations of their people. For a youth increasingly connected through social media, high unemployment and lack of opportunity were also primary concerns.

The Arab Spring protests have seen the overthrow of seemingly entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, showing the strength of a strong civil society demanding democracy, economic opportunity, and respect. Of course, the path in the Middle East has been far from smooth, with violence in Egypt -- including deplorable attacks on that country's Christian minority -- and the brutal crackdown by Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

In the city of Homs, considered an epicentre of the Syrian revolution, the violent crackdown of the Assad regime has continued for more than a month making the city a war zone. Estimates of the number dead in the country from Assad's crackdown, since March 2011, are in the range of 8,000 people.

Furthermore, as per a report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, the atrocities of Assad's suppression of protesters include the killing of civilians, bombing of residential areas, and torturing of wounded protesters in hospitals.

These setbacks -- violence in Egypt and the crackdown in Syria as a couple of examples -- can seem discouraging signs for the establishment of democracy in the Middle East. However, the struggle for democracy is often a long and difficult one, but one with an outcome that vindicates the value of the struggle.

Throughout most of the 20th century, Latin American countries endured often oppressive dictatorships and exploitation of their resources and people by American corporate interests. The term "banana republic" had been synonymous with Latin American politics.

A notable example was Augusto Pinochet who, in 1973, overthrew a democratically elected government through a military coup with American help. His government instituted an extreme neo-conservatism by gutting social programs from health, to education, to housing and social welfare, while lowering taxes with an emphasis on "laissez-faire" economics.

While there was "economic growth" in Chile, wages were low and unemployment high (peaking at 30 per cent during the 1980s). The wealthy benefited while the poor and middle-class suffered.

This onslaught of neo-conservatism was backed by brutal military repression of pro-democracy and social justice advocates, with arrests and executions of dissidents -- in the thousands -- and banning of opposition parties. Though over the last decade there has been significant progress, with democracy becoming well established throughout the region and the people -- including the poor -- electing leaders who reflect their concerns.

While the most visible in Western media of this wave of elected leftwing governments is Hugo Chavez -- an erratic leader with worrying authoritarian tendencies -- many of these other governments have been marked by good economic management, a concern for the poor and downtrodden, and respect for democracy.

In Brazil, President Lula DaSilva emphasized helping the poor and vulnerable (for example by combating malnutrition), but also a strong market economy which emphasizes economic growth, job creation, and fiscal responsibility. Once an economic basket case, Brazil is now a success story -- even with a worldwide economic downturn -- with rising literacy rates and life expectancies. DaSilva himself left office after his two-term limit with an 83 per cent approval rating.

In Bolivia, a country with a majority indigenous population, Evo Morales was elected as the first indigenous president. Helping the poor -- including the country's indigenous majority who have especially high rates of poverty -- and environmental sustainability have been priorities of Morales's government. On the world stage, Bolivia has been a strong advocate for action on climate change complaining that proposed agreements do not go far enough -- this is a contrast to Harper whose government has been a reactionary force in this regard.

In 2010, economic growth throughout Latin America was 6.1 per cent -- a testament to the success of democratic governance in the region. This economic prosperity has been cemented by greater emphasis on regional cooperation in contrast to intervention and domination by the United States.

The people of Latin America have been able to make their voices heard through the ballot box, electing governments responsive to their concerns and aspirations. During the 1970s and 1980s, when dictators like Pinochet reigned supreme, this would have seemed a dream to many. The struggle for democracy can be a long and hard one, but it is important and worthwhile in the end.

Hopefully the struggles in the Middle East will be vindicated. Hopefully democratic governance will take root in the region with governments reflecting the values of economic and social justice. Hopefully there will be governments in the Middle East that respect the people.

It won't be an easy transition, but there is good reason to be optimistic.